In Italy the beginning of February has nothing to do with groundhogs and shadows but rather with a cake-like bread, the blessing of throats and celebrating woolen blankets. These disparate, seemly unlike, items and events do have a common denominator in Italy and his name is San Biago.
San Biago or St. Blaise, like St. Nicholas, was one of those saints who accumulated the legends and lore of folk customs for a variety of reasons. Best known as the saint protector of the throat since he once saved a child from choking, San Biago is also the patron saint of shepherds and the woolen industry because he was allegedly martyred on a prickly stone table used for combing out wool. His feast day, February 3rd, is especially celebrated in Italian towns and European villages where wool was worked.
Coincidentally February 3rd is also the last “best buy date” for a Milanese panettone baked over the Christmas holidays. The citizens of Milan ( where a statue of the Saint sits atop a spire of their Duomo) save their last piece of panettone to eat that day to commemorate San Biago and a legend. Just before Christmas a woman went to have her panettone blessed by the village priest who could not bless the bread at the time. Leaving the bread, the priest thought that the woman had forgotten about it so he ate it himself. However she returned on the feast of San Biagio. To the priest’s great surprise, San Biago had interceded and the relieved priest found a whole panettone twice the size of the one left by the woman.
Today I’ll be eating my last slice of panettone under a warm woolen blanket invoking San Biago to protect me from the illnesses of winter. I never seem to have the willpower to save my panettone so this year I bought two, one to eat and one to use in place of the flu shot I never got. Grazie San Biago.